Glory Days

Sarah Schulman was already working on her third novel when, in the late 1980s, customers at Leroy’s coffee shop in Tribeca, where she was waitressing, told her she needed to get an MFA. She joined Grace Paley’s CCNY class and, as she later wrote, read “a scene from my novel-in-progress After Delores, in which the lesbian narrator meets a little go-go dancer named Punkette, who takes her back to her tenement apartment and tells her about the woman she loves.” The other students didn’t get it: They assumed that the narrator was a man. Paley gave Schulman a sharp look and told her to wait behind. “Look, she told me once the door was closed. You’re really a writer. You’re really doing it. You don’t need this class. Go home.”

“As raw as fresh-shucked oysters and redolent with ragged charm,” said the New York Times review when After Delores was published in 1988. “Just lovely,” said Kathy Acker, who gave it a rave in the Village Voice. The writing was fluid and dark, funny and poetic, as rich and scary and exciting as the pre-gentrification streets of lower Manhattan: locks torn off and rooftop shooting galleries; a storefront performance space along the block from Cuchifritos; a pizza parlor run by “stoned Arabs with big grins.” And Schulman’s ethical sense was especially thrilling, the way she handled the most painful urban encounters. For instance, there’s the scene in which her hip, rent-stabilized young narrator gets stopped on the street by a homeless woman who says how awful it is and starts crying, and the narrator agrees and starts crying too: “But the whole time, it was like she was on a television set. . . . I was crying for me.”

A couple of years ago, After Delores was republished in a twenty-fifth-anniversary edition with a Nan Goldin photo on the cover and a new introduction by Schulman. The novel, Schulman wrote, “came out of a vibrant, intense underground of gay women” who existed in “a kind of emotional anarchy” that people who didn’t have to live like that could never comprehend. And yet After Delores was, she has written elsewhere, “the first modern lesbian novel to be . . . gloriously received on its own terms.” The acclaim continued with her next novel, People in Trouble (1990), but vanished on publication of her fifth, Empathy (1992), which completely flopped. Schulman would never be so “gloriously” welcome in the mainstream again.

In an afterword to Empathy’s 2006 edition, Schulman considers what went wrong. It was perhaps bad luck to have published her most mysterious, inward book just as Judith Butler (“who I like and respect”) was trending everywhere with her view, interestingly different from Schulman’s, of sex and gender as matters of performance. More harmful, though, was the rise of the big chain bookstores and their practice of marketing LGBT books in a separate section, “an instant undoing of all the progress we had made to be treated as full citizens and a natural, organic part of American intellectual life.”

And there was something else. Empathy in part discusses the experience—which Schulman herself knew “intimately, organically”—of being young and queer in America in the 1980s and early ’90s, of attending funeral after funeral as friends and comrades died of AIDS. Schulman joined the direct-action organization ACT UP in 1987, and shares its view of AIDS as a disaster caused as much by neglect and homophobia as by HIV. Even now, after twenty years of effective treatments, her generation is still scarred by what she has called “that magic combination of the mass death of their friends and the mass indifference of government, families and society.” Survivors, she writes, live “in a kind of hell of confusion and chaos that feels personal but is actually political,” whether they have “moved on” or remain “confused, displaced, lost.”

Schulman writes more about this in The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, a book-length essay published in 2012. What she calls “literal gentrification” is something we all know well: the “concrete replacement process” that drives lower-income people out of newly desirable inner-city neighborhoods. But this gentrification of the streets, says Schulman, comes hand in hand with a “spiritual gentrification,” a “dumbing down and smoothing over of what people are actually like.” You might argue that, what with Transparent and Modern Family, queer voices are being heard more than ever before—but isn’t there something muffled about the timbre? Schulman writes, “I don’t want to live in a world in which the majority of lesbian representations are family-oriented, celebrity-focused or (shudder) cutesy. Do you?”

And she makes a still more disturbing observation. AIDS, Schulman argues, sped up “literal” gentrification by killing off a generation of bohemian inner-city dwellers, releasing their apartments back onto the real-estate market at uncontrolled and rapidly inflating rents. For the generations coming up behind them, the consequences are profound. Younger LGBT people can now choose to get married or join the army—but, especially in places like New York, it has become too expensive for them to live in close proximity in the city center and sustain a shared culture of the kind that existed before: “When the ACT UPers were in their twenties, they were dying. And the replacements for the dead, these young, were on the road to normalcy.” Some younger people, Schulman finds, are curious about the past and “intrigued by the potential of living for more than LGBT domesticity.” But others have evidently sensed that success comes easier if you find ways to blend in, “maneuvering” your queerness into cuddly, unthreatening positions. Which is something, as we’ve seen already, that Schulman is not prepared to do.

Not that any of this has stopped Schulman from publishing a book every two years or so. There has been only one long hiatus, when no one wanted her eighth novel, The Child, in which she shows a fifteen-year-old boy enjoying sex with a man of forty—it was finished in 1999 but did not find a publisher until 2007. If you actually read The Child, you’ll find that the boy’s situation is complicated, painfully enmeshed with the lives of the people around him, and depicted with delicacy and humor. All Schulman’s best books from After Delores onward have those qualities. But the novel that came after The Child, The Mere Future (2009), was very different: a poetic satire set in a dystopian hyper-liberal city in which “things are slightly better,” and the gay narrator works as a copywriter on “the gay Gap campaign.” And her new book, The Cosmopolitans, set in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, is completely different again.

In some ways The Cosmopolitans is a straightforward period piece—“book-club gold,” as its blurb proclaims—featuring Paul Robeson and huge television sets, and male homosexuality just beginning to edge from the closet in the bohemian enclaves downtown. But it’s also an extraordinarily radical and risky (and not always successful) experiment that seizes on what you thought you knew about the period—the racism, the birth of television, the influence of Freud, the deep ban on any consideration of lesbianism, even as an idea—only to chop it up and reassemble it in jarringly unexpected shapes.

Sarah Schulman, 1988.
Sarah Schulman, 1988. Robert Giard © Estate of Robert Giard

The novel is set mainly in a Tenth Street tenement in 1958, the year of its author’s birth—she makes a cameo appearance, Hitchcock-like, as a neighbor’s yelling baby toward the end. The heroine, Bette, is a fifty-year-old spinster, and neither “family-oriented” nor “celebrity-focused” nor interested in any sort of sex at all. All that, it seems, was broken in her when, as a girl in Ashtabula, Ohio, she was thrown out by her family after the boy she loved seduced then disavowed her. Her young cousin Hortense isn’t gay, and neither is her glamorous work friend, Valerie, “a very lively, young, bright, and, well, brassy brunette” (though she is curiously pally with the regulars at Julius’s in the West Village, one of the first gay bars in New York). Garbo is spotted at one point, “barreling” from a gallery with Betty Parsons, but that’s it for what Schulman calls “primary lesbian content” in this novel. Bette plus Hortense, Bette plus Valerie: Everybody might be happier if such permutations were allowed to happen in the world of The Cosmopolitans. But they’re not, and so everybody will suffer, which is presumably part of Schulman’s point.

The plot, Schulman explains in an afterword, “responds” to two classics of realist fiction: Cousin Bette (1846) by Honoré de Balzac and Another Country (1962) by James Baldwin. Like the Baldwin, it is set among “rejected and marginalized people of different races and places on the spectrum of sexuality.” And as in the Balzac, the central character is a poor relation, ill-served by the rest of her family, who sees her chance to wreak revenge. Balzac’s Bette is unrequitedly in love with Wenceslas Steinbock, a handsome young Polish sculptor; Schulman’s dotes and depends on Earl Coleman, the aging black gay actor living in the apartment across the hall. Things are fine until this central relationship is threatened, and then all the power of Bette’s pent-up passion is unleashed.

Bette is rightly proud of the life she has made for herself. She has a job as a stenographer at an advertising agency. She can watch the streets from her corner window and be reminded that she “lived in a novel right here in New York. . . . And a painting. And a factory. And a dreamland. That is to say, a film.”Her friendship with Earl, she thinks, is “permanent as the ocean . . . and as endless.” Earl, meanwhile, works in a slaughterhouse and picks up acting jobs—and men—when he can find them. Like Bette, he has been disappointed in love, and he spends many evenings sitting in her apartment, drinking a single bottle of beer.

Things start changing when Bette’s cousin shows up with her suitcase. Hortense has run off from Ashtabula to seek her fortune as an actress and is expecting Bette to put her up. At first, Bette does not see the danger this new element poses to her happy arrangement. It hasn’t occurred to her that Earl might allow the younger woman to draw him into an easier, more conventional life—and yet that is what happens. Bette herself cannot imagine making such a compromise, but for Earl, the fact that he can never love Hortense is part of her appeal: “There can be a relief, perhaps, that they will never be that close.” Through a complicated set of maneuvers involving Valerie, the ad agency, and Hortense’s mother back in Ohio, Bette plots her revenge for the loss of the man she’d considered her “friend . . . for life.”

The filmic, “dreamland” quality Bette observes in New York’s streets extends to much else in the novel as well. For one thing, Bette herself is a reworking of (and perhaps an attempt to recuperate) a noirish camp archetype. Bette Davis, apparently, took her stage name from the Balzac novel, long before Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and Balzac’s Bette was profoundly dark already, with perversity rolled up deep in her every friendship and a face “like the face of a pythoness.” Schulman’s afterword is called “A Note on Style,” and in it she notes that a particular kind of realism has become “so overbearingly dominant” in American fiction that we “see it as neutral,” whereas “in fact it reflects values about contemporary social order and control as cohesive, sensical experiences.” The Cosmopolitans focuses on marginal people and is, as she puts it, “distinctly stylized to reflect its characters’ specific emotional experience of the world”—which is to say that it is flagrantly, virtuosically artificial. “The door opened then with the force of the tornado that took Dorothy Gale to Oz,” Schulman writes, “and there Earl stood, enormous in its frame.” Bette “playacts,” uses “props,” delivers a “soliloquy,” and, planning a showdown with several of the other characters in her apartment, anticipates “the enormous pleasure of watching her play come to life.”

Some of the heightened effects work better than others. In her afterword, Schulman explains her intention to “evoke the era” of the novel’s setting “through slight allusion to the Britishized American English” of a translation from that period, but the strange, sententious running commentary that accompanies the action often doesn’t come across like that: “Once Bette let herself buy LUX, she would keep buying it. . . . It would become known, stable. It would make her feel safe.” “He was being handed his one true last chance on earth for happiness. Last opportunity to be cared for, to be seen, to be recognized. Acknowledged, held, loved, and heard.” And I’m not sure about the deliberately corny street scenes and about-to-burst-into-song-any-minute set pieces: One, in which Bette shows Hortense how New Yorkers eat lox, drink Chianti, and glide round each other in the Jane Jacobs ballet of the sidewalk, is actually described as “Pygmalionesque.” There is even an “intermission” announced in the middle of the book, before the clever, fast, allusive revenge plot in the second half.

As I read and reread, I began to wonder whether the awkward, pointedly theatrical quality of some of the prose might be an indication that Schulman had once intended it to be a play. She has said many times that her favorite form of writing “by far” is for the theater, though she struggles to get much of her work produced, and The Cosmopolitans might indeed do well as a dark, sophisticated musical. It even has a scene toward the end at the Caffe Cino, the birthplace of off-off-Broadway theater: “Earl sat in the back, marveling at all the camping and innuendo. . . . It was strange to see it all out in public that way.” What can he possibly be watching? You wonder if it could be Sarah Schulman’s latest show.

In 1990, Schulman published People in Trouble, one of very few great American AIDS stories, and as rich in charming, deplorable characters as all my favorites among her books: the married woman in an affair with a younger lesbian, certain that she can’t be gay herself; the straight man who thinks he’s ever so hip and radical, except that he doesn’t really have a clue. Schulman, though “unsatisfied artistically” by the book, was excited by a plan to adapt it in collaboration with Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie, the creators of the 1995 opera Harvey Milk. Then Rent, Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-winning musical, opened in 1996. Schulman believes that Larson mined her novel, unacknowledged, for its depiction of AIDS in the early-1990s East Village. But Larson can’t just pay up and add a credit, because he died of an aortic dissection the night before Rent’s first preview. Larson was not gay, and Rent’s take on AIDS was, as Schulman wrote in her book Stagestruck (1998), a “whitewashing.” No wonder reading the theater sections in The Cosmopolitans can feel like poking at a bruise.

One character in The Child is a lesbian playwright in her thirties who would do anything to see her work on the stage but is starting to think she never will. “The theater,” she considers, is “entirely illogical,” and people who don’t get that will never really understand “why all that cruel and lovely artifice matter[s] so very, very much.” I myself am one of those who don’t quite understand this passion for the theater and its artifice: I’d rather Schulman just kept writing about the lives she sees around her, like that of Hockey, a character in The Child who had expected to die of AIDS, but didn’t, and contemplates a future “strewn with death, fear of death, absence, fear of absence, incredible pain, incredible discomfort, Hickmans, pills.” Schulman has produced many gorgeous novels: After Delores, People in Trouble, Empathy; Rat Bohemia (1995, and the third in what, if I were a publisher, I’d be marketing as the Sarah Schulman AIDS trilogy); the very early, utterly delightful Girls, Visions, and Everything (1986). Far too much of her career has been spent being left out and overlooked. But she has been “gloriously” and rightly acclaimed before now, and in the future can only be so more and more.

Jenny Turner is on the editorial board of the London Review of Books.